Monday, December 20, 2010

Vision Quests

So I Friday I asked you guys what you thought your Patronus would be, and we discussed Spirit Animals a little bit. I know I promised to break down the little that I know about them, but before I can even do that I have to talk about the Vision Quest.

The Vision Quest is a somewhat nebulous thing, and the traditions can vary a great deal from culture to culture, but I think it is summarized well at the Crystal Links article here, which I will borrow from:

A vision quest is a rite of passage, similiar to an initiation, in some Native American cultures. It is a turning point in life taken before puberty to find oneself and the intended spiritual and life direction. When an older child is ready, he or she will go on a personal, spiritual quest alone in the wilderness, often in conjunction with a period of fasting. This usually lasts for a number of days while the child is tuned into the spirit world. Usually, a Guardian animal will come in a vision or dream, and the child's life direction will appear at some point. The child returns to the tribe, and once the child has grown, will pursue that direction in life. After a vision quest, the child may apprentice an adult in the tribe of the shown direction (Medicine Man, boatmaker, etc).


I don't want to disrespect the tradition or culture behind these ideas in any way, so I'm not going to pretend that what I experienced should be considered as powerful as a true Vision Quest, but it was important experience for me as a young man, so I will share some of it with you.

When I was 16 I was sent away to reform school in northern Idaho. My mom had died when I was 11 and my dad was out of the picture. I had been living with my aunt and uncle and had become quite a troublemaker, so they sent me away to school. The place I went had some really horrible aspects, but it also had some really amazing ones.

One of the things I loved the most was all the wilderness survival skills they taught us, and how they incorporated lots of Native American traditions into the lessons. We had a sweat lodge on campus, also known as a Medicine Lodge, which is essentially just a natural sauna. There were a lot of funs nights getting really hot in the sweat, and then jumping in the lake. We also had some Totem Poles around a giant fire pit, where we sometimes conducted ceremonies like the Sage Rub.

At one point in my stay there, I spent 6 weeks living out of a backpack and a tent in the Cabinet Mountains in western Montana. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. While on that journey we took part in our own version of a Vision Quest. Traditionally, a Vision Quest is carried out by a young person, usually around puberty, when it is time for them to find their place in the tribe. They will usually go out on their own into the wilderness, and either travel or camp on their own, often fasting and going without sleep for days. It is during this period in which the young person is usually visited by visions, often including the appearance of a Spirit Guide, also known as a Spirit Animal, or Totem Animal. Hence the term Vision Quest.

Of course Modern Medicine knows that the stress caused by sleep deprivation and hunger can often be enough to trigger hallucinations, depending on the length and severity of the stress. In many Meso-American tribal cultures these hallucinations are considered holy, which is why certain tribes take peyote, or hallucinogenic mushrooms.

We didn't do any of that, obviously, but we did all go onto what they called "solos" where each student set up their own camp, and lived by themselves for several days. We had to build our own lean-tos, and we were issued a big bag of trail mix, so we didn't actually fast completely, but we did go without regular meals. They didn't tell us to go without sleep, but the counselor who set me up did share with me about his knowledge of traditional Vision Quests, and he explained that if I chose to stay up and meditate, or go walking around, or write in my journal, I might have a more spiritual awakening than if I didn't. It was not required, but it was encouraged.

I'm not going to go into a whole lot of detail here, because this was a really personal experience for me, but it should suffice to say that I did not stay up or fast long enough to hallucinate, walk on water, or have an out of body experience, but I did eventually pass out in my sleeping bag, where I dreamed about being visited by a Cougar-ess who could talk, and sounded like my mom.

I'm sure the power of suggestion was heavily at work here, and I'm not going to speculate about the psychological aspects of this kind of thing, but it was all pretty cool for me, and makes for a great story.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for more on Spirit Animals, and some of the symbolism behind them!

34 comments:

Stephanie M. Lorée said...

I see where your inspiration for Warrior Monks comes from. Thanks for sharing this part of you.

And while I'm sure there are lots of rational explanations for your cougar encounter, the spiritual version makes for a better story. Besides, truth is relative.

Scribbler to Scribe

DEZMOND said...

is there a more modern way of doing this VIsion Quest? I'm not sure me and camping are good friends :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm with Dezmond. I would have ended up pouting the whole time.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Giant Sloth!


And that was a great post. Interesting stuff. Have you ever read Into the Wild? You might like it. Though, you know, it doesn't end so happily as your story.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great post. I find things like this fascinating.

Jess said...

Sounds like an amazing experience. I was out in the wilderness for eleven weeks in Colorado and did a three-day solo and fast in my early twenties (was lucky enough to win a scholarship to an Outward Bound Semester, so yes, we're talking a kind of controlled wilderness experience). No hallucinations for me either, but it's amazing how different you feel after a few days of being completely away from human contact. Thanks for the awesome post!

LTM said...

awesome story. It reminded me of my summer camp experiences (3 wks in the woods, no electricity, etc.). I did it from age 8-17 yrs. We had free times when we could go by ourselves in the woods, and it was always magical...

Anyway, that made me a little sad about the Cougaress who sounded like your mom. :o\ I have a story related to that, but this comment is too long. To sum up = works for me! :D Merry Christmas~

Kristi Helvig said...

It's awesome of you to share this story with us. As a perpetual student of all things metaphysical, I find vision quests fascinating--I think being in nature allows us to connect more easily with our spiritual side. Great post!

maine character said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm really glad you had that chance to connect.

P.S. You went to a way cooler high school than I did.

aspiring_x said...

wow! that's very interesting! and i think cougars are majestic and powerful and beautiful and altogether awesome! it doesn't matter where the dream came from... what matters is what you took from it... and it sounds like you took a whole lotta comfort and strength and inspiration from it, and that, sir, is a beautiful and admirable thing! :)
thanks for the interesting post! i didn't know a thing about vision quests! :)

Lenny Lee* said...

hi mr matthew! i like this post and i gotta say i believe in a spirit guide. one time a indian came at our house with one of my brothers and he did a lot of stuff that helped us find our spirit animal. mine is raccoon. i didnt choose a raccoon. the raccoon chose me. wow how cool is that. all of my brothers and sister got different ones.
...spirit animal hugs from lenny

Ted Cross said...

I think I've seen a few movies that did this or something close. I see you threw lots of this into your first book!

Lola Sharp said...

Can my vision quest/alone time be spent in a 5 star hotel? I like a nice mattress and a hot bath.

Seriously, I love this post.
My childhood was horrific and abusive but there was no camp. There was only survival and eventually escape.
Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Happy holidays, Matt.
Love,
Lola

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

That must have been such a cool dream to wake up from. It'd be hard not to see significance in it, even if it was influenced by your strongest desires.

As for my patronus, I believe it looks like Lady Gaga.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds like a unique experience.

Old Kitty said...

Oh this is so sad! :-( But I'm glad your mum visited you - and as an almighty and mystical cougar. I hope the visits continue! Take care
x

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Up until this point, the only knowledge I had of vision quests were from The Simpsons and Family Guy, so thanks for enlightening me :) It sounds like an amazing experience though. Did your vision quest help you toward your life's direction too?

Melissa Gill said...

I'm sorry that this amazing experience had to follow the loss of your family, but clearly it had a very positive impact on you as a person.

I always feel so soft and weak when I hear about people who survive such tremendous challenges. But I know that your trials have only made you stronger.

And a cougar is such a cool animal.

M.A.Leslie said...

That is really amazing. When you break through the layers of a person and see what makes them who they are, you start to understand how they become themselves.

It must have been an eye opening experience.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I know some of the posters here are joking with the comments about doing a spirit quest in a hotel or saying they'd whine throughout, but still...

The whole point is to get out of yourself. You strip off all the things that you hang on yourself as your public face, and what you're left with is the "real" you. You get rid of the outside stimuli and see what comes out of you from the inside.

It takes time and quiet and concentration.

If you go the "long" route and fast, you won't feel hungry after about 3 days - so long as you drink water. Lots of water.

It's a seriously personal thing. You don't "shortcut" this sort of thing and you don't do it with a room full of creature comforts. If you distract yourself, you've cut yourself off from your own internal voice, which is what you need to hear.

(And I know I probably sound irritated, but I'm not, really.)

Colene Murphy said...

Wow. Wow. That is just amazing! I'm sorry about your loss though. I couldn't imagine living out of a tent! That is some serious nature loving nards for that!

Falen (Sarah Ahiers) said...

after reading Kristy Sweetland's blog, nothing surprises me anymore regarding spirit guides and animal totems anymore.
That sounds like such a cool experience. Thanks for sharing it

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Fascinating, Matt! I have always wanted to spend a couple days completely alone in the woods or desert, with the specific intention of meditating and tapping into my deeper spiritual side.

I missed Friday's post, but I think if I had a Patronus, it would be some sort of bird.

Cold As Heaven said...

Your reform-school camps looks almost like being in the army, except you didn't have an automatic rifle, I presume. To me that makes it more attractive than the army

Cold As Heaven

Wendy aka Quillfeather said...

An incredible experience and a very interesting post.

Carolyn Abiad said...

Thanks for sharing such an intimate part of yourself with us here...and I'm really liking this series!

Shannon said...

This is an amazing post, Matt. Thank you so much for sharing it. Honestly, it makes me even more interested in Warrior Monks. ;)

I can't wait to read more tomorrow.

Hugs and stuff,

Shan

Chris Phillips said...

Thanks for sharing this.

Renae said...

Though I'm not much with the camping and whole outdoors thing, this sounds amazing!

Thanks for sharing this story Matt, I loved this post!

Vicki Rocho said...

I had no idea that you'd modeled parts of Warrior Monks after your own experiences.

I loved this post. I think too many people discount their dreams. Sure, some are nonsensical (hello? Niedermaier?), but I'd like to believe in your Spirit Guide!

H. Grant said...

Matt, what a wonderful story. You have fascinating background.

Last year I began to meditate on the deck in my backyard. It was the first time I had meditated in a long, long time. A baby robin walked through the fence, tottered up to my feet, and chirped at me...

Slamdunk said...

Good post Matthew. Growing up in the SW US, many of my friends were Kiowa, Arapaho, or other tribe members. I learned a lot about them balancing modern societies with their ancient traditions.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

That was beautiful and moving, Matt. I can't be away from some form of nature too long. It feeds my spirit. I've never done a vision quest but lived in wilderness areas and fasted for days. It teaches you something deeper than day to day living.
I used to keep journals of dreams, and I had a lot with bears who often conversed with me. I don't know what that means but I keep bear fetishes around out of respect.
I can't wait to read your novel some day. The query alone hooked me.

Angela Ackerman said...

Wow, thanks for sharing what you went through, Matt. I have a son who is very attuned to nature and something like this would be a dream come true for him. I hope one day he can have an experience like this.

Happy holidays!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse